Clients doing business in China often ask our China lawyers what they should read “to prepare for China” and our answers to that question usually vary with the client and the circumstances. How is that for a lawyer answer?
But for clients with little to no experienced with conducting business overseas, I have of late been recommending the book, Global Dexterity: How to Adopt Your Behavior Across Cultures without Losing Yourself in the Process, by Andy Molinsky, a professor of organizational behavior at Brandeis International Business School. I was reminded of that today when a friend sent me a link to a Fast Company Magazine article by Molinsky, entitled, Master the Art of Adapting to a Foreign Office Culture.
This article starts out with a situation in which pretty much all of us who do business overseas have encountered:
If you have ever lived or worked in a foreign culture, you have likely confronted situations in which the natural, comfortable “default” behavior from your native culture turns out to be ineffective for a situation you find yourself in within a new cultural environment.
In each of these situations, you don’t just struggle with understanding cultural differences. Rather, you struggle with the far more challenging task of actually changing your culturally ingrained behavior. I call this ability global dexterity—the capacity to adapt your behavior, when necessary, in a foreign cultural environment to accommodate new and different expectations that vary from those of your native cultural setting.
Molinsky then discusses the tension between changing so as to conform to your foreign surroundings so as to end the discomfort, but not changing so much as to become “inauthentic.” I personally can relate to this tension and I often hear others expressing similar concerns. You want to adapt but at the same time retain your “core.” And it is not just people that face this tension; companies do as well. See Explanations For Apple’s China Success, where way back in 2010 I talk about how Apple’s China success is due in large measure to its having “stuck to its knitting.”
Molinsky’s prescription for resolving the tension is to first learn the cultural rules, or what he calls the cultural code. He defines the cultural code as each “situation you face—whether it’s learning to give constructive criticism, make small talk, negotiate, participate at a meeting, or ask a favor of your boss—has certain rules for appropriate behavior in a given cultural setting.” He then portrays them in terms of six dimensions that capture the expectations that others have for our behavior in a foreign setting”:
These six dimensions represent key aspects of communication that differ across cultures, and that previous researchers in psychology and cross-cultural communication have shown to predict important personal and professional outcomes. Of course, there are many potential dimensions of communication style, and these six features are not the only dimensions that exist, or that differ across cultures. However, in my experience, this particular set does an excellent job at capturing cultural differences in a succinct, but comprehensive manner:
Directness: How straightforwardly you’re expected to communicate in a particular situation. Are you expected to say exactly what you want to say, or to “hint” at something in a more indirect manner?
Enthusiasm: How much emotion and energy you are expected to show when communicating. Can you express how you feel, or is it more appropriate to hide your positive feelings?
Formality: The amount of deference and respect you are expected to display with your communication style. Are you expected to show a high level of respect when communicating with someone in a particular situation, or can you be more informal?
Assertiveness: How strongly you are expected or allowed to voice your opinion and advocate your point of view in a particular culture and in a particular situation in that culture. Should you be forthright in expressing yourself, or work at hiding or sublimating your point of view?
Self-promotion: The extent to which you can speak positively about yourself in a given cultural situation. Should you actively promote your positive qualifications or be more self-effacing?
Personal disclosure: The extent to which it is appropriate to reveal personal information about yourself to others. Should you be open and forward in expressing details about your life, or is it more appropriate to hide these personal details?
Each situation you encounter in a foreign setting will have a specific cultural code for behavior along each of these dimensions. When motivating workers in India, there is a certain level or amount of assertiveness that you will be expected to show as a leader. When bonding with work colleagues after hours at a restaurant or bar in Japan, a certain level of enthusiasm is expected, which is quite different from how enthusiastically you are expected to behave in other situations that you might encounter in Japan.
I know the above sounds complicated, but I do think that just reflecting upon these sorts of issues can help one to better navigate business in foreign countries like China. And hey, even if it doesn’t, it certainly can make for interesting discussions.
Do you agree?